Being special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco) in a big secondary school is not a job for the fainthearted. The demands, from colleagues, children, parents and outside agencies are high and call for excellent management skills.
What's the main challenge though? Jan Thompson, Senco at The Grove, a 1,200 pupil comprehensive in St Leonard's, East Sussex, is quick to single out communication.
"It's about getting useful information out to teachers in the classroom and getting feedback from them on children's needs," she says.
INVOLVING ALL TEACHERS
This is a statement of the hard work all Sencos do to bring to life the oft-stated principle that all teachers are teachers of special needs.
This is a notion that's faced an uphill struggle. Even the language - "mainstream", "special" - works against it. But the expectation is that each teacher will produce classroom work that's differentiated and inclusive. There will be support from the subject department and from the Senco's team, but the teacher's responsibility is clear.
The point of Thompson's remark is: what the specialists know about a child's history and learning needs has to be readily available to the teacher. And the teacher's observations of the child's work and progress should be available to the special needs department to guide planning.
The difficulty has been one of time and logistics. Too often, information intended to help the teacher - such as an individual education plan (IEP) - isn't readily to hand. It may, for example, be tucked in a filing cabinet, where it is theoretically accessible but easily overlooked.
Thompson and her team have adopted two related strategies to tackle this.
The first is to distribute ownership of education plans so that they're not exclusively generated by the special needs department.
The aim is to give form tutors a key role. "The form tutor knows the child as well as anyone," says Thompson. "Part of our principle here is that the form tutor is the centre of the child's educational world."
This demands good communication between the various individuals and departments who have something to add to a child's records, and it's here that the second strategy comes into play in the form of increased use of ICT to store, handle and exchange information on pupils with special needs.
The Grove is a specialist maths and computing college that is heavily committed to the benefits of ICT, so every teacher already has a computer linked to the school network,. "The form tutor has access to all sorts of data on targets, grades and levels for each child in their tutor group," says Thompson.
When the system at The Grove is fully operational, responsibility for special needs record keeping and planning will be distributed across the staff. The special needs department will then act as co-ordinator, consultant and leader of a whole school process, rather than as the single fount of wisdom.
The administration system in use at The Grove is SIMS, from the software company Capita, which is helping to develop this whole-school approach. A key ingredient is IEP Writer, which is integrated with SIMS and uses its pupil database, making it accessible for all teachers who wish to contribute to, or consult, education plans.
The key task at The Grove is to extract special needs data from paper files and put it into SIMS. "We have four filing cabinets of student files," says Thompson. "Staff are told they can refer to them, but it's difficult, and we feel that having computer access will, in effect, put special needs files in every classroom."
The move to electronic records is scheduled to take several months. It involves scanning in observations, reports, and summaries of meetings so that form tutors will be able to call up a pupil file and find any note or document marking out his or her special needs history.
"The challenge then is keeping it going, with everybody adding to it," says Thompson. All staff will need to sign up to maintaining the data because not everything will go through the special needs department. "For example, a year head might refer a child to a counsellor. But so long as that's logged centrally it'll be on the record."
It's clear that The Grove has selected powerful tools for managing special needs. But the way that teachers use them will play a large part in the success of the system. At The Chalfonts community college in Buckinghamshire, Senco Gill Minikin uses SIMS for record-keeping but relies on the simplicity and flexibility of an Excel spreadsheet for handling education plans.
She gives teachers brief, distilled plans that are readily available on their laptops via the school network. (Parents receive a more extended version.)
A teacher preparing for a lesson will call up the education plans for the group and find, say, six of them, each perhaps 50 words long. Each starts with a list of abbreviations showing basic facts and figures about the pupil ("SA" for school action, for example) and goes on to a tight summary of key characteristics, such as: "Sometimes under stress. Vulnerable within school. Handwriting and presentation poor. Must wear glasses."
Because they're created on a spreadsheet, these plans can easily be sorted for the various teaching and tutor groups to which children belong as the timetable progresses.
The issues of communication and data-handling are generic, so the suppliers of other management information systems, such as Phoenix and Integris, will respond positively to a school that sets out clearly what it wants to do.
But managing special needs across the departmental structure of a big school has as much to do with vision and leadership as it does with the details of ICT.
Jan Thompson at The Grove has taught for 30 years, and it is quickly clear that her status in a school where more than a third of pupils have special needs is key to its ability to look after them.
As director of studies for special needs, she's a member of the leadership group and leads a strong special needs staff, which includes an assistant Senco, the manager of an inclusion unit and a big team of teaching assistants. This level of commitment is more important than any amount of computer software.
Gill Minikin sums up the story for both schools: "What the outsider sees is the paperwork, but what's important is how it's arrived at."
IEP Writer (now in version 3) is a SIMS "premier partner", but it is commonly used alongside other management systems and is available - and widely used - as a standalone product. It is developed by Learn How Publications (www.learnhowpublications.co.uk) The latest SIMS developments (www.sims.co.uk) promise a number of improved features for Sencos, including easier communication, closer integration with IEP Writer and, through Teachers Desktop, the facility to work offline at home, uploading work back at school the next day.